In the end, two words may decide the township’s fate.
Attorney Jeffrey Baron, representing STEM (Save the Environment of Moorestown), filed a complaint in Superior Court Tuesday seeking to block the township’s use of the Open Space, Recreation, Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund for athletic field improvements and asking for an interpretation of the township’s Open Space ordinance.
Baron’s action followed a lengthy, occasionally testy council meeting Monday during which he told township council their use of the Trust Fund was “unlawful.” In spite of that, at .
Baron also filed for an injunction against the township to keep it from spending money from the fund before a judgment is rendered.
One of the key elements of Baron’s argument against the township is the language in the interpretative statement for the 2007 referendum to approve the Open Space ordinance, which explains that the fund will be used “exclusively for the acquisition of lands for recreation and conservation purposes; development and maintenance of such lands …” (The full statement, as well as the ordinance itself, are attached as a PDF to this story.)
Because of the use of the words “such lands”—which are not contained in the state statute Moorestown’s ordinance is based on—the township is restricted to using the funds solely for the acquisition of land and the upkeep of that same land, according to Baron’s interpretation.
Meaning: Since Wesley Bishop wasn’t purchased with the Trust Fund, spending money from it to improve the field is impermissible.
Baron believes the state statute is restrictive enough as it is, but said the specific wording of the township’s interpretative statement makes his case even stronger.
Township attorney Thomas Coleman’s interpretation differs, of course, and it’s that interpretation Mayor John Button, Deputy Mayor Greg Gallo and Councilman Mike Testa followed when they voted “yes” Monday.
“We researched this extensively, and I feel we’re on solid ground going forward,” Button said. “I’ve been wrong before, but I think we’re on solid ground.”
He added, “I’m not afraid to make a decision that’s going to upset some people. I’m going to do what’s right for the town.”
Though the vast majority of public comment Monday was in opposition to the use of the Trust Fund, Button said he’d had numerous “sidewalk conversations” with people around town and felt there was plenty of support for his and his fellow councilmen’s position.
“It’s no small thing that ,” he said. “They voted (in favor of the project) with their pledge of dollars.”
A handful of residents spoke up in support of using the fund for recreation, including one man who said, “As I read (the Open Space ordinance), it does authorize this. Please council, don’t be buffaloed by a lawyer (Baron) coming in here and throwing his weight around.”
Since the proposed improvements at Wesley Bishop include the installation of a turf field, Baron also contends in his complaint that Councilman Testa’s status as a managing partner at represents a conflict of interest.
“The improved recreational facilities will attract and enable larger lacrosse tournaments, for which RuffLax has solicited for business on previous occasions,” the complaint reads, continuing, “and (Testa’s) children will have a better playing experience.”
The township Ethics Board ruled unanimously last June that as it pertained to the K.I.D.S. Initiative.
Testa could not be reached for comment.
Several people—including Baron and council members Stacey Jordan and Chris Chiacchio, who voted against dipping into the Trust Fund—questioned the timing and urgency of the project, especially .
Button explained the project had been in the works for three years, and delayed multiple times .
“We’ve held these contractors at bay over and over and over again,” he said. “We’ve got kids that are getting hurt. We’ve got people who want to use the fields from out of town. It’s a revenue generator for this town … I’m not willing to wait. This needs to be done.”
Of paramount concern to those opposing the use of the Trust Fund for improvement of the fields is that it will deplete the fund, hindering the township’s ability to acquire new open space.
Projections prepared by financial officer Tom Merchel show the balance of the fund remaining in the $400,000-600,000 range for the next 10 years, then dropping to roughly $200,000-300,000 in 2024. Merchel’s projections include expenditures for Wesley Bishop South—which was tabled at Monday’s meeting—but do not include contributions from the sports clubs or matching funds from the state.
Though Button believes the fund will remain healthy enough for the township to continue acquiring open space, he said using the Trust Fund was a last resort. Button, Gallo and Testa had advocated bonding to fund the field improvements, but could never reach a consensus with either Jordan or Chiacchio, who resisted because they felt it was an unnecessary expenditure.
“I didn’t think it was the right priority at the right time to bond for it,” Jordan said Monday. “We have a town hall that burned down, and that’s what my priority was.”
Should the judge rule in favor of Baron’s strict interpretation of the township ordinance, it would not only put the kibosh on the use of the Trust Fund for Wesley Bishop—it would also, presumably, prohibit the township from using the fund for other projects more acceptable to the pro-open space crowd, such as maintenance of , for example. The park wasn’t purchased with money from the fund, but the township uses it to mow the grass and repair the dam.
“I’m concerned if the judge did rule in the most literal sense, that’s going to be more narrow than we’d like,” said Mark Hines, co-founder of and .
“If you could only use this land for acquisition and development of open space, it would result in a tax increase,” said Button.
Baron said a hearing will be held at 10 a.m. next Friday, Aug. 3, before Judge Ronald Bookbinder. The judge is expected to rule on the injunction, but Baron said the possibility exists that Bookbinder could rule on the complaint as well.
“If he felt comfortable he had everything he needed, he could make a ruling,” said Baron.
The hearing will likely be open to the public, according to Baron.
To read the full complaint filed by Baron, check the PDF attached to this story.
Also attached to this article is a statement from the township Open Space Advisory Committee.